Pretend Power

Hannah BerkowitzOctober 27, 2016PowerFeatures
Pretend Power

The first time I noticed power was on a golf cart ride when I was in kindergarten.

My father, to my frustration, told me to hold on tight to the cart’s frame, since I was riding backwards and without a seat belt. But my dad wasn’t the boss of me. He didn’t even know what fun was.

So, of course, I did not hold on. I was on my face, on the concrete, by the first turn. These days, I notice power more in my everyday life. I see it in exterior and more tangible structures, like parents and gravity, but I see its nuances more often within myself. I see how feelings of power can manipulate me — and how I can manipulate them back.

The week after I fell off that golf cart, I hid my face from my classmates. The skin on my nose had completely ripped off and I had this huge, bloody scrape on my forehead. I kept my head down, my arms crossed, and my mouth closed. I felt awful. Although, I suspect I wasn’t doing myself any favors. According to a philosophy called embodied cognition, our bodies can influence our minds in the same way our minds control our bodies. I made myself small and unavailable, so I felt small and unavailable. It seems like a chicken-and-egg situation. If I feel tired during the day, is it because I am slouching? Or am I slouching because I’m tired? Embodied cognition tells us that we have much more control over the way we feel at any given moment than most would think.

My scars felt like they were taking years to heal, even after only two or three weeks. My dad kept telling me to smile. I did not want to smile. I was not happy. But he was pestering me, so I gave him a wide, slightly sarcastic, grin. Then, by some miracle, I started genuinely smiling. My angry grin did something to my mood that I did not understand at the time. Apparently even a fake smile can significantly improve your mood. In a 2008 study, Dr. Andreas Hennenlotter of the Technical University of Munich proved this point. He conducted two experiments: one in which he had participants smile naturally, and one in which he injected Botox into participants cheeks, so they couldn’t smile. In both experiments, he used MRI machines to measure brain activity. As terrifying as that experience sounds, the results came out to support his theory. Hennenlotter found that the physical act of smiling affected the brain’s processing of emotional stimuli and the part of the brain that causes happiness. They were able to trick the mind into following the body’s lead.

And it is not just smiling. In her TED talk, Harvard behavioral psychologist Amy Cuddy spoke about the idea of embodied cognition and the experiment she did to prove it. She had people take high-power positions (body open, taking up space) and low-power positions (body closed and defensive, small) for two minutes. She tested their testosterone and cortisol levels before and after the posing. Testosterone is a hormone that affects confidence, aggressiveness, risk taking. Cortisol is a hormone related to stress. The people in high-power positions had raised testosterone and lowered cortisol levels, and the people in low-power positions had the opposite reaction. In a separate experiment, she had people take the same opposite poses again, but this time she put them through a stressful, filmed, job interview. Employers watched the tapes — oblivious to the conditions — and picked those they would want to hire. All of those picks had “power posed.”

This idea spread like wildfire — two minutes in a certain position could change so much about a person’s mind. It is so easy and simple, it sounds fake. Well, it kind of is because no one can tell the difference between real and fake confidence. Cuddy and Hennenlotter both proved that “fake it till you make it” really works. The best part is that the more a person fakes confidence, the more it becomes a very real part of a person’s life.

Long after my scrapes healed, reclusive kindergarten me was replaced by a rising ninth grader — confident, happy, nose-bandage free. Then, I actually started school. Intimidated by the older kids and the more challenging courses, I stopped smiling as often. I developed a habit of touching my neck and hair when I was anxious, which was often. Being small and unobtrusive felt easy, safe. What right did I have to be powerful? I stopped raising my hand, stopped being open and vulnerable. As a result, my self-esteem plummeted.

I was painfully aware of my situation, and sought out ways to make myself feel better. For tenth grade, I switched schools. I thought about the idea of “fake it till you make it.” I started pretending to be confident, smiling often, walking with my head up. I laughed loudly and talked using my hands. It was exhausting; I felt like I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. But eventually it stopped feeling like an act and I actually was more confident and happier. The relationships I made were more meaningful. Allowing myself to be open, loud, visible, and therefore vulnerable, gave me the power to tangibly improve my life. This is the upshot of the research on body language — that we have some control over how powerful we feel. In situations where we feel intimidated or unworthy, there are easy, quick things we can do that will really change those feelings. Feeling more powerful means more confidence and less stress, leading to more happiness and general capability.

Kindergarten me is still there, clinging to the scars left on my nose and forehead. Her presence helps me remember that there are still things I cannot pretend to have power over, like gravity. I’m only just leaving behind ninth-grade me, whose ideas about how I should act still influence me. But I can push my lips into a smile, I can put my hands on my hips, and I can feel my pretend-real power as often as I want.


Amy Cuddy: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are. Perf. Amy Cuddy. TED, June 2012. Accessed May 2015.

Patel-Wilson, Taren. “The Subtle Smile.” Yale Scientific Magazine. Yale University, March 18 2012. Accessed November 2015.

Wilson, Robert A., and Lucia Foglia. “Embodied Cognition.” Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Stanford University, June 25 2011. Accessed June 2015.

Hannah Berkowitz is in the 11th grade at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. She enjoys reading, writing, and listening, and loves small animals.